Saturday, December 13, 2008


Wait for it... wait for it... within the next couple of days, in the aftermath of the CC Sabathia and AJ Burnett signings, we should be getting the first few articles saying "The Yankees aren't only rich... they're smart too!!" Bob Klapisch, I'm looking in your direction. Every time the Yankees have made any big signing in the past 8-12 years, we're always guaranteed at least one article of that ilk, even though the Yankees stopped being smart and frittering their huge money advantage by signing a bunch of mid-level free agents to huge contracts sometime around 2002ish.

Still, signing Jaret Wright and Carl Pavano to hilarious contracts and making Jason Giambi baseball's second highest paid player for the better part of a decade don't mean that every move they make is inherently stupid. After all, they finally sent Melky Cabrera to Scranton
after he spent 18 months not hitting. See, they can do smart things.

So, are the Sabathia and Burnett signings "smart?" The 10th edition Webster's Dictionary describes "smart" when used as an adjective, as follows:

1 : making one smart : causing a sharp stinging Hmmm. I don't know that Sabathia and Burnett were signed to sting people, but maybe?
2 : marked by often sharp forceful activity or vigorous strength Again, while their two pitchers do display what may be called "vigorous strength," I don't think this is what Klapisch has in mind.
3 : BRISK, Spirited
Sabathia is certainly spirited, but I don't know that brisk is especially
: a: metally alert : BRIGHT b: Knowledgable c: shrewd
Yes, I think this one is more what they were getting at. Is correctly identifying the two best free agent pitchers "knowledgable"? I suppose so, though in Sabathia's case it was pretty obvious. Was giving them $263 million dollars "shrewd"? Not really, no.
5 : a: WITTY, CLEVER b : PERT, SAUCY [don't get ~ with me ]
This doesn't really apply either, though I'm pretty excited that I got to type the word "saucy." So that made my day.
6 : a: NEAT, TRIM b : stylish or elegant in dress or appearance c(1): SOPHISTICATED (2) : characteristic of or patronized by fashinable society
I like this one, because we're talking about a 311 pound man who just got signed to pitch in the Bronx.
7 : a : being a guided missile [ a laser-guided ~ bomb] b: operating by automation [ a ~ machine tool ] c: INTELLIGENT
If Sabathia and Burnett do have laser guided bombs operated by automation, then yes, this is definitely a smart deal.

All joking aside, whenever I read columns describing the Yankees as "smart" when signing people, the thesis seems to be working to prove that they're not stupid. There is a gap between smart and not stupid. Having the most money, and using that money to bid higher on a scarce good that everyone else wants is not inherently "smart." C.C. Sabathia is a fantastic pitcher, and was made the highest paid player of all time. For $161 million dollars, he'll be a Yankee for eight years. I think too many people are worried about how Sabathia will perform in year eight. Yes, his body will probably break down by then. But is paying for, say, eight years of elite performance sensible when you're only likely to get five or six? In this case, yes, because paying for eight and getting six is better than only offering to pay six and getting zero.

Long story short, the Yankees best pitcher from 2008 was retiring, and they needed to fill that void. They have more money to spend than any other team, so they paid the most for the best. Was that necessary? Probably. Was it sensible? All things considered, I'd say so. But was is "smart?" Did Brian Cashman and Co. show any special shrewdness or intelligence in their plan to replace their ace starter? Nah.

In baseball terms though, Sabathia and New York are a good fit. If the new stadium plays like The Stadium, then a big lefty who happens to be tough on lefties is perfect. He won't get much help from the Yankee "defense," but he has a huge left field to turn a few homers into doubles, and maybe a couple into outs, and strikes out enough people that a few singles skipping through that gaping hole up the middle won't matter much.

AJ Burnett though? Nah. A top prospect years ago, his performance has rarely matched his hype. A 32 year old on opening day, Burnett has made 30 or more starts in exactly two seasons. The glass half full guy would point out that one of those seasons was last year, and argue that his injury history is behind him. Others would point to the fact that the Yankees are paying $83 million to sign a non elite pitcher with an injury history, who has never made an all-star team or even gotten a single vote for the Cy Young Award, coming off the most innings he's ever logged, through his age 36 season. Smart? lists "similarity scores," taking stats of players and comparing them to every player in history. Of the 10 most comparable players, only one is active, and as luck would have it, is the same age AND is also a free agent. He's Randy Wolf. Strike One.

Let's look at the nine others, shall we?

#1 is actually a pretty strong comparison. Pete Harnisch was the 27th pick in the 1987 draft by the Baltimore Orioles. A top prospect, he middled with the Orioled for a couple years before the Astros completely fleeced Baltimore in what was probably the most one-sided trade of the 1990's, getting Harnisch, Steve Finley and Curt Schilling for Glenn Davis. Harnisch pitched well for Houston, making the 1991 All-Star team. Later, he was traded to the Mets, and pitched fairly effectively in front of an abysmal team before getting hurt and also fighting a fairly public battle with tobacco withdrawal. Before the 1998 season, he signed with the Reds, and experienced a bit of a "late" career revival, late being in quotation marks because he was only 31 in 1998.

In 1999, at age 32 (the same age Burnett will be on opening day), Harnish had one of the finest seasons of his career, going 16-10 with a 3.68 ERA. So far so good, right Yankee fans? Oh yeah, those other four years. After logging 407 innings in 1998-99, Harnisch made only 22 starts in 2000, going 8-6, with a 4.74 ERA, which equated to an ERA+ of a completed average 100. In 2001, at age 34, Harnisch finished his career by making seven starts, going 1-3 with a 6.37 ERA. He never pitched in the Major Leagues again.

The next comp is Stan Williams, who pitched from the late '50's to the early '70's with the Dodgers, Yankees, Indians and Twins. Yankee fans may remember him best as the guy they traded Moose Skowron to the Dodgers for. Like Harnisch, after a couple middling years, Williams broke through and made the All-Star team as a 23 year old in 1960. Also like Harnisch, Williams pitched well, got hurt, and had a comeback at age 31. At that point though, Williams was a "swingman" starting perhaps three to four games a month when needed (often during a doubleheader, for example) and pitching in relief in between - not a role the Yankees have any interest in using Williams in.

When he reached 32, Williams was no longer effective as a starter, and began to pitch exclusively out of the bullpen. At 33, on the 1970 Twins, Williams, pitched 113 innings in 68 relief outings, going 10-1 with a 1.99 ERA. That would be his last effective season though. He pitched poorly in 1971, and was traded to the Cardinals. After 12 innings with St. Louis, he was released. In 1972, he was signed by the Angels, where he didn't pitch in the majors, was released and picked up by the Red Sox, where he had a 6.23 ERA in three relief outings. After Boston released him, Williams did not pitch in the majors again.

Blue Jay postseason hero Juan Guzman is the next most similar. Like Harnisch and Williams, Guzman pitched in one all-star game, as a 25 year old in 1992. Guzman was similar to Burnett in that he threw quite hard, struck out a lot of people, and had bouts with wildness. After battling injuries and some ineffectiveness in the mid 1990's, Guzman was having a bit of a comeback at age 31, pitching effectively for the Blue Jays, when he was traded to the Orioles in a midseason deal. Guzman continued to be fairly effective that year, finishing 10-16, but with a 4.35 ERA, and perhaps most importantly, he made 33 starts, the first time he made over 30 since 1993.

In 1999, Guzman joined Harnisch on the Reds in a midseason trade that brought the Orioles future closer BJ Ryan. Guzman had been pitching fairly well for the Orioles, with a 4.18 ERA in the tough AL East. Upon the trade to the Reds though, the 32 year old Guzman started pitching his best baseball since his glory days with Toronto. In 77 innings over 12 starts, Guzman went 6-3 with a 3.03 ERA, along with 60 strikeouts and 21 walks, helping the Reds tie the Mets for the National League wild card. Based on that performance, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays signed Guzman to a two year, $12M contract. One and two thirds innings and eight earned runs into that contract, Guzman, at 33, blew out his arm and never pitched in the major leagues again.

Erik Hanson had pitched from 1988-1993 the Mariners, and often quite effectively, but the Mariners poor offense never gave Hanson the win-loss record he deserved. After one year with the Reds, Hanson joined the Red Sox in 1995, as general manager Dan Duquette was not worried about Hanson's win-loss record, and instead focused on his good strikeout and walk rates. His lone year with the Sox turned out to be one of his best. He went 15-5 on that division winning Sox team and, as a 30 year old, made his only all-star team. A couple bad starts down the stretch raised his ERA to a still-acceptable 4.24, especially when accounting for Fenway and AL East inflation. Hanson turned this success into a three year contact from the Blue Jays. In year one of the contract, Hanson was durable but only occasionally effective, going 13-17, with a 5.41 ERA. More troublingly, his walk rate nearly doubled - after a career of consistently walking fewer than 2.5 men per nine innings, his walk rate ballooned to nearly 4.5 in 1996.

Hanson then lost that durability in 1997, at age 32. In his final two seasons, he pitched only 64 innings, giving up 47 earned runs, a 6.61 ERA.

Need I go on? The rest of the similar players are Kirk McCaskill, Wilson Alvarez, Mike Boddicker, Jose Guzman, and Hideo Nomo. Now, recall that Burnett is signed through his age 36 season, Of the nine retired players on Burnett's top 10 list, only one, Nomo, even HAD an age 36 season. The nine combined to go to zero all-star teams in their age 32-36 seasons. The best of the group was Nomo, who won 16 games both as a 32 and 33 year old, before posting a 7.60 ERA the next two years over 184 innings.


Now certainly, we can't guarentee Burnett will be out of baseball in 2013, the last year of his contract. Sports medicine is always improving, and players are staying healthy longer than ever. And, of course, similarity scores are only numbers. While some of this group, like Harnisch and Nomo, bear strong similarities to Burnett, others, like Randy Wolf, certainly do not. But given the risk against the relative reward - Burnett, again, is a zero time all-star, has once won more than 12 games, and has twice made 30 starts - it seems like an $82 million question mark.

Even beyond that risk, did the Yankees "need" Burnett? Despite all of the talk about their tremendous offense, they had as much trouble scoring runs in 2008 as they did preventing them. In the 14 team American League, the Yankees were 7th in runs allowed, and 7th in runs scored. Replacing Jason Giambi with Nick Swisher isn't going to solve any of the issue with scoring runs, but it should help prevent a few more. After signing Sabathia to replace the retired Mussina, the "smart" move would've been to use all of that extra money to make a run at Mark Teixeira, an elite player who is likely to be a Hall of Famer. Instead, they signed a second-tier starting pitcher who, despite the hype, has never been all that close to elite. Sabathia brings the Yankees closer to the Rays and Red Sox in the AL East. Burnett will help them continue to be baseball's most overhyped (and overpaid) underachievers.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I like your engaging way of debunking conventional wisdom